The Dutch Socialist Party has 52,000 members and is the biggest opposition party in the Netherlands. Getting votes, however, is one thing. Becoming a party for for discussion and action for working people, young and the poor is another matter.
Over the last few weeks, public discussion began on the internal and democratic functioning of the party. On Thursday, 12 July 2007, a ten-person panel of SP members announced the formation of the ’Committee for a democratic Socialist Party’. This initiative received a lot of media attention. The initial reason for this came out of a discussion about elections to the Dutch Senate (upper house of the parliament). The deeper reason was discontent among a section of the SP membership on the functioning of the party.
The Committee for a Democratic SP is receiving support from elected SP public representatives in regions like Overijssel en Drenthe and from SP members spread across the country. The leading members of the organisation are Duzgun Yilidrim, who was elected to the Dutch Senate, and Rick Denkers, head of the SP branch in Emmen and a member of the SP National Committee.
The SP doubled its votes to 16% in June’s Senate elections, increasing their number of seats from 4 to 12. Duzgun Yilidrim was one of the people elected. The leadership of the SP, however, was not happy with his election. The Duch Senate members are not elected directly but by the elected members of the the provinces. The results of the provincial elections determine the number of seats in the Senate. The people who got elected in the regions can vote for one candidate on the list of their party. The SP currently has 83 elected members in the provinces who could vote for the 30 candidates of the SP on the SP list for the Senate. Duzgun stood on the 18th place on the SP list and received 5 votes, which was enough to get elected. It also meant the person who stood 12th on that list was not elected.
The SP leadership was not happy about this result and wanted the 12th listed candidate, Ineke Palm, who is the Chair of the SP in Rotterdam, to go to the Senate. They argued there was a prior agreement that the elected members of the provinces would only vote for the first candidate, so that the first 12 members on the list would get elected. The people who voted, however, did not seem aware of that agreement, as 28 out of the 30 members on the list for the Senate received votes and no official document exists that mention the SP leaders’ ’agreement’.
In other elections, preferential votes were taken into account and not the position on the list. The daughter of Jan Marijnissen, the SP national leader, got elected to Oss council on preferential votes and not because of her position on the list.
As such, this discussion could have been solved internally. The SP party leadership, however, used the media to attack Duzgun and the people who elected him and accused them of ’disloyality’ to the party and ’disrespect’ for the rules. As a result, Duzgun refused to give up his Senate seat. The Chair of the party in Zwolle quit in protest against the methods used by the SP leadership and was later followed by the leader of the SP in the city council. They said all they wanted was a fair discussion. This move was answered by the SP leadesr removing Duzgun’s SP-webblog and by blocking his e-mail account. Duzgun and others were also threatened that if they did not listen they would never get "another job".
Not isolated incidents
The discussion about Duzgun is not an isolated incident. Many other stories have surfaced as a result of this. A day before the Committee press conference, Elma Verhey, the editor of the SP party newspaper, was suspended by the Chair of the party, Hans van Heijningen. Her ’crime’ was that she wanted to publish a report on a party meeting where some members criticised the leadership of the party and quoted some members’ remarks.
The Committee says there is a problem concerning the lack of open debate in the party. "In a democratic party, one should have the right to disagree with each other. In the SP you only have the right to agree with the party leadership," commented Rick Denkers, who recently quit the National Committee.
At the Committee for a Democratic SP press conference three demands were put forward as a basis for a discussion within the party. The three demands called for the democratic election of a committee that could put forward proposals for debate within the members to democratise the party’s internal functioning. The committee also called for the revoking of the National Committee decision demanding that Düzgün Yildirim give up his Senate seat and the SP leaders should apologise to the membership and elected SP representatives for their conduct.
Those involved in this campaign for party democracy claim they need the apology of the party leadership to be able to go back to their own electorate with enough authority to continue their party work. The attitude of the party leadership undermined their authority and that is why the local party leaders suspended their activities. "The party leadership should react fast because the image that they create about the party is damaging the work of many party members," commented Duzgun.
Towards social democracy?
The SP has seen spectacular growth over the last couple of years. They went from two Members of Parliament in the mid-nineties to 25 now. They have two Members of the European Parliament, twelve members in the Senate, 83 members in the regional chambers and 345 local councillors. This development was accompanied by a drive towards the "political centre", i.e. a move to the right by the party leaderhsip. The SP is part of governing coalitions on twelve local councils and they are not afraid to follow neo-liberal policies. In Nijmegen, they privatised the local public transport company. Since 2004, the party leadership made more statements saying they are prepared to enter national government, without making concrete ’red lines’ they would not cross.
The SP began as a small Maoist organisation but became an attraction on the left because of strong campaigning work. But the credit they gained among the working class could dissappear fast. Rank and file members are replaced on the lists by known public figures, journalists, academics etc. In many areas, the differences between the programme of the SP and that of the social democrats (PVDA) has become very small. As long as the party has increasing electoral gains, the SP leadership is able to sell this to the majorty of the party membership. Those who oppose this are usually ’neutralised’.
In Dutch society, the SP is still seen as a left force. However, the more politically active workers and young people see the SP becoming a social democratic style party, whose main objective is to increase its electoral position, and who will set aside its principles to be able to govern the current system.
The newly formed Committee could do something to halt this process. Only a campaign by the membership can change the course of the party. The Committee should open discussions with the wider membership of the party about the way forward. The SP is not owned by some party leaders but by its entire 52,000-strong membership.
To be successful, the SP needs to adopt bold socialist policies, alongside fully democratic party structures. The Dutch working class needs a campaigning party, with independent working class policies, to lead the fight-back against the coalition government.